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The Sam Willows interview

We spoke to the polished pop siblings ahead of their first ticketed show in KL

Since emerging in 2012 with YouTube covers, the unabashed, very polished pop quartet – siblings Benjamin and Narelle Kheng, with Jon Chua and Sandra Riley Tang – has not only shaken up the scene but is today arguably Singapore’s hottest band: They’ve toured the States, signed to a major label, and have a full-length original album ‘Take Heart’ out now. We spoke to The Sam Willows ahead of their first ticketed show in KL.

What was it like recording your debut album ‘Take Heart’ with producer Harry Sommerdahl in Sweden – and why Sweden? Was it because the Swedish are so good at pop music?
Benjamin Kheng: One thing about the Swedish, they have really good pop sensibilities. Most of the best English pop songs –
Narelle Kheng: – not even just English, but Korean too.
BK: Yes, have come out of Sweden. For us, it was the case where when we had the opportunity to record with him, it was a no-brainer.

Outside of music, you’ve all been busy with personal projects. Sandra owns The Yoga Co. and teaches yoga; Jonathan has his own production company; and Benjamin and Narelle have acting on the side. How do you reconcile all these very different, various interests and then make time for music?
NK: I think it’s always good to take time apart from music because if you find yourself tunnelling into it, you develop tunnel vision. It’s good to check out, it helps you develop creatively as well. If you do yoga, you get like, I don’t know, namaste [band laughs].
Jon Chua: Also because of our individual commitments, we work extra hours. We do our own things during the day and we meet at, say, 7pm and then we go all the way until 11pm, midnight, 1am.

Most artists that owe their success to YouTube go on to produce some original content, and those that do rarely go back to putting out covers. The Sam Willows still put out covers. Why is that? With covers, is there still space for originality and personal expression?
Sandra Riley Tang: Covers, I guess, is a good way to fuel your creativity. The song is already there, but you get to play around with it.
NK: We do it because we love it, and we enjoy putting out content on YouTube.
SRT: We decided that we are a pop band, and we do love pop. It essentially just means ‘popular’; radio-friendly music, right. With that said, no matter what sort of music you’re doing you still have to put in creativity, effort. It’s still the same for covers I think, we put in the same amount of effort rearranging the songs.

In a Nookmag interview back in 2013, Benjamin mentioned that in the States ‘there is a general intention that people want to celebrate originality’, but in Singapore, covers sell best.
BK: I think in general, in Singapore, covers still have a stronger weightage with the regular listener but slowly original music is celebrated a lot more. The trend is slowly coming around. Singaporean artists are charting on radio, Singaporean artists are sitting in number one spots on iTunes.
NK: I think support for local music will come when there’s a supply of it. In the past few years we’ve seen an incredible increase in supply and it’s only going to get better, [hence] support is also only going to get better from here.

You mentioned earlier there’s a new musical movement among the younger singer-songwriter generation in Singapore. There’s talk of a renaissance of some sort.
BK: A lot of people are breaking out of that comfort zone and starting to put music out, starting to perform their music. I won’t go as far as to call it a renaissance, but slowly and surely more people are doing music, and more people are listening to music.
NK: When more people come up, that means there’s more competition and you have to fight harder to be on top, which then means you really have to push yourselves as artists. That’s great for the scene I think, because then we’re going to be producing better and better music.